Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Vintage Caroline Charles, Beloved of Princess Diana...

Or, When I Was A Grande Dame. Except I Was Too Young. And Too Intoxicated.

When I graduated from Princeton, in June of 1978, I had no job. I was without training for a job. I had majored in Comparative Literature, Italian, French, Latin. Epic poetry. I knew a lot about metaphor. And metonymy. I sent in an application to American Express to become a travel agent, since I had enjoyed traveling with my family to Jamaica and Mexico, and to France for Princeton. Evidently American Express was not staffed by a bunch of complete idiots because I was not hired.

I could have lain around my mother's house for months with migraines. But a few weeks was really enough. One of my Texas roommates was in London, on a Sotheby's course. She had a flat. Aha. I could join her. But to do what?

So my father called his old Harvard roommate, who was living in England. A theatrical agent, responsible for people like Anthony Quinn. He said he could probably find me something. I had no idea that this was an artifact of privilege. I was very naive. But I filled out the forms for a visa. I flew to London. And got a job with Cameron Mackintosh. He's Sir Cameron Mackintosh now, having single-handedly reinvigorated the British musical industry. CATS. Phantom. Etc. At the time he ran his 4-person shop up in an attic office above Covent Garden. Narrow, worn, wooden stairs, noisy to climb.

The job consisted of, well, making tea. Answering phones. Cameron's life, however, was very glamorous. And he was very good at what he did. Which meant that, in 1979, he was appointed to produce the Society of West End Theatre Awards. The British equivalent of the Tony Awards. Now known as the Olivier Awards.

I was not supposed to attend. But, at the last minute, i.e. the morning of the event, an extra ticket was available. And they offered it to me, their young American intern.

Cue wailing and tearing of hair. I didn't have a dress. I was going to the British Tony Awards and I didn't have a dress. As you can imagine, anxiety nearly knocked me to my knees. High WASPs don't go to formal events without the right dress. Cinderella and all that. I explained my situation, and they let me run out of the office. I had 4 hours to shop.

I wound up at Harvey Nichols. Slightly more manageable than Harrods. And in a frenzy, spent something like $600 (a lot of money in 1979) on a dress by Caroline Charles. Who would one day clothe a princess. But that day, she dressed a little American in this.

Yes. I still have it. Black silk chiffon, hand-dyed, metallic flecks. I have never known why I kept these things. Clearly it was to show you all.

And off I went.

I was remarkably stupid back then. Overwhelmed by the glitter around me. Liza Minnelli sang. She came by our table to say "Hi," to Cameron. I drank too much. My colleagues thought it was funny. They kept filling up my glass. I did not object.

Dinner ended. Awards were given out. An after-party ensued. Albert Finney was there. Handsome. Younger. I was young too. And completely drunk. Which explains, I hope, why, when introduced, I proceeded to tell him that I thought he was fabulous and should he be looking for a companion that evening I was available.

Ever the well-behaved proper British gent, when necessary, Mr. Finney replied, "That's very sweet of you dear. I am most appreciative of the offer. However, I believe my girlfriend might object." His girlfriend. Right over there. Diana Quick, the It girl of London.

Or so I was told. As is common with that degree of intoxication, I don't remember much. I do not, however, believe that a Grande Dame would have behaved that way. Dress or no dress. Sixty-two rum and tonics facilitated by amused colleagues or no sixty-two rum and tonics. What do you think?

I am not sure that Grandes Dames have as good stories as the rest of us. But if they do, I bet they wouldn't be embarrassed to tell. Impunity.

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Blogger Plus Size Bride said...

I could use a high wasp parent/uncle/dear friend of the family to help me land a new job! LOL
LOVED the story and the dress too! I would love to see a picture of you in it!

October 8, 2009 at 9:37 AM  
Blogger DocP said...

Lovely dress. I have often wondered if it is better family connections, or that it is considered socially acceptable to use them. I had a apartment mate once who was horrified at the thought of using connections - she had been raised to see this as taking advantage of the relationship in a negative way.

October 8, 2009 at 10:35 AM  
Blogger Sevenbeads said...

What a great story and what a gorgeous dress!

October 8, 2009 at 10:56 AM  
Anonymous Queen of Cashmere said...

The dress looks good decades later and the story is hilarious. It's a situation that makes a mother's remorse but we call have been there.
At least you did this while you had the bloom of youth about you. A pretty dress + a lovely young thing and all can be chalked up to high spirits by the time the alkaselzter finishes fizzing.
Not so with an old crusty-dusty of a certain age. I am much better behaved now than I was in my youth!

October 8, 2009 at 11:03 AM  
Blogger Black Labs and Lilly said...

What a great story, and how fun that you got to attend something like that! This dress is a true fashion treasure, I love the detailing on the skirt!

October 8, 2009 at 11:15 AM  
Anonymous evencleveland said...

That dress is to die for.

I think all grand dames actually have such stories - it's what makes them so irresistibly alluring creatures.

October 8, 2009 at 12:22 PM  
Blogger Maureen@IslandRoar said...

What a wonderful story, and I love the dress. Ah, drunken stories are such fun when they end well. Sounds like the perfect job for that time and time of your life. Tell us more!

October 8, 2009 at 12:36 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wonderful story! You had me at too young and too intoxicated LOL!

October 8, 2009 at 1:11 PM  
Blogger LPC said...

I hope all grandes dames have such stories. That would cut another notch in the anxiety reduction gun of middle age. I'd wear the dress again, but my waist is nowhere near as small as it was then. My ribcage has taken over, it seems. In retrospect, I am so happy my colleagues took care of me, leaving this story, and my dress in one piece...

October 8, 2009 at 1:28 PM  
Anonymous the Preppy Princess said...

This is such a sublime story Miss LPC, especially because I adore Albert Finney. But that dress.... ooh-lala, it is delicious! The fact you saved it is just outstanding, the colors and beading are stunning, I just know you looked gorgeous in it.

Smiles to you, thank you for sharing a little slice of heaven this afternoon!

October 8, 2009 at 1:38 PM  
Blogger Maria | Vintage Simple said...

You know, once again, I am simply touched by the stories that fill your life... There is something very tender about the way you tell them... This is a great story. And I'm glad it ended well.


October 8, 2009 at 3:02 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

What a brilliant story, LPC!

I am not yet a grande dame (nor may I ever be one...) but I hope to have stories exactly like this to share. Ahem, I already have the embarrassing drinking-too-much ones, and the interning ones, but not the glamourous working-for-someone-before-they-become-Big-Famous ones!

By the way, you should check my blog today... :)

October 8, 2009 at 3:03 PM  
Blogger Duchesse said...

The story with everything: butterfly-year non-job, luck, luminous dress, flagrantly "bad" behaviour and Albert Finney. Dress should be in a museum with a card telling the story!

Caroline Charles has just set up a web site so you can order your new frock and misbehave all over again!

October 8, 2009 at 3:11 PM  
Blogger M said...

How charming!

The dress is lovely, and the story is quite an adventure. And most grandes dames have a few adventures in their past...

October 8, 2009 at 4:53 PM  
Blogger QueenBeeSwain said...

love you all the more for this story- how fun and isn't life fun? there's an adventure just around the corner and you know- it's all in good jest and another good story for the grandkids ;)



October 8, 2009 at 5:39 PM  
Blogger Buckeroomama said...

The dress is just lovely... especially more so that it's silk chiffon. And I just had to smile at your story. You tell it in such a dignified way, even the "intoxication" bit. :)

October 8, 2009 at 6:47 PM  
Blogger materfamilias said...

I love Duchesse's suggestion -- and I wonder what would be the contemporary version of that dress? Or at least, since that dress itself is still wonderfully contemporary, what dress would your presumably-less-prone-to-the-drinking-that-leads-to-fabulous stories self -- i.e. your "mature" self -- be likely to choose for a similar event today? Enquiring minds would like to know . . .

October 8, 2009 at 7:44 PM  
Blogger Jill said...

Well there you go girly! You and I are more alike than I initially thought! What a dress! I love it...the memory of that evening is far too fabulous to ever get rid of it.

October 9, 2009 at 5:19 AM  
Blogger Miss Cavendish said...

Fabulous memory! I love that you kept the dress. (I still have my Princess Diana "black sheep" sweater . . .)

October 9, 2009 at 6:51 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 9, 2009 at 7:03 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have often wondered if it is better family connections, or that it is considered socially acceptable to use them.

Yes! Use them if you are otherwise qualified. All's fair, etc. Those of us without connections would use them in a second if we had them. I know I (and a lot of other people) could have done Chelsea Clinton's $100K+ job right out of grad school, but unfortunately, my father was not the president and couldn't make the calls for me.

October 9, 2009 at 7:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I once read that the first generation of a family to make it to college isn't nearly as successful as later generations who take college for granted.

The reason given was because first generation college students don't realise that they can make connections in college that might help them in the future. They are blind to it.

I believe it. I come from a working class family where no one was ever going to be able to pick up a phone to make anything happen. ;-)

October 9, 2009 at 10:57 AM  
Blogger Meg said...

Now THAT is a great story. You better not ever get rid of that dress. Someone is going to be thrilled to wear it one day.

October 9, 2009 at 11:08 AM  
Blogger f8hasit said...

Darhlink....that's fabulous!
Love the story, love the dress. I once had a similar dilemma because the opportunity arose to attend a White House dinner last minute and I and didn't know what to wear.

I still believe my call to Barney's is why I'm still alive today.

(don't ever get rid of that dress...)

October 9, 2009 at 11:48 AM  
Blogger LPC said...

In terms of family connections, I thought about this yesterday. This was the only time I ever used them. I imagine my father's thinking was, well, she can't be any worse than any other 21 year old...Since then my career has taken such a different path from my family's habit that there's never been a place to use them again. If I were qualified for something that required it I would do it, however.

BTW, there is a play now on stage called Love, Loss, And What I Wore. Using clothes to tell a life story. It was a cute book first.

October 10, 2009 at 4:47 AM  
Blogger Lipstick said...

What a fabulous story...thank you for sharing. I am so glad that you saved your dress.

BTW, I love how your began the post with a super-close photo of the pattern so we were tantalized and completely unaware of what it was. You are good... I would like to pre-order my book please.

October 12, 2009 at 8:47 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love your dress! Looking forward to your book - of stories, and pictures. Please say you'll write one.

October 13, 2009 at 3:47 PM  
Blogger LPC said...

True confession. I would love to write a book. True confession. Scared.

October 13, 2009 at 4:50 PM  
Blogger C.J.M. said...

Fabulous, fabulous, magical story. I think every girl (esp. every Princeton girl) dreams of an adventure abroad precisely like this one. Serendipity is so brilliant that this landed in your lap. I adore Albert Finney--Two for the Road is my favorite Audrey Hepburn film and he makes for a great leading man. And, of course, I adore your dress. Will your daughter inherit it?

October 14, 2009 at 2:00 PM  
Blogger Ashley Turner said...

Great story and fabulous dress! You have no idea how much I would have DIED for an opportunity like you had... I went to NYC with a theatre management degree and didn't get nearly as far as you did... but I had some exciting experiences too! More stories about London please!!! FABULOUS!!!

October 16, 2009 at 1:40 PM  
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